Before I left for Tanzania last year to hike up Kilimanjaro I wrote a short piece on altitude sickness. High altitude pulmonary edema was my favorite buzz phrase, though considering the factors of the hike–long days, gradual inclines, plenty of available food and water–the odds of said illness were probably pretty low. Nevertheless, it was still a possibility. A woman was brought down on the summit day with eyes so bulging she could have been a body double on the set of Total Recall. I got flu symptoms around 15,000 feet that carried onward through the evening even when we dropped in elevation. The morning of the summit I felt awful until later in the afternoon when we’d reached camp at 9,000 feet.
Now, these are fairly obvious symptoms. Headache, nausea, wanting to barf all over your boots. But there was another symptom I did not expect and did not even recognize until this last trip I took in July: backpacking the John Muir Trail. The symptom? Goofy energy. You can see it in action in this picture here–where I’ve got a good set of crazy eyes–leaning back against Muir Hut atop Muir Pass, Julie next to me throwing almonds at the local pesky marmots. This was the highest point of the trip thus far: 11,955 feet. For the previous, maybe, 1500 feet I was giggling and rampaging up the trail. The giggles though. That was the weird part. That’s what gave me some concern.
For four days I had been hiking with a group of people I had met along the trail. Hiking alone is easy and fun in part because you set your own pace. If you’re feeling strong you can trudge on and put in 20 miles. If your feet hurt, if you’re hungry, if your blisters have doubled down and filled with blood, you can stop, you can take a zero day, you can even decide to hike 3 miles instead of 15. I did this most often by stopping when I found a good campsite. Maybe it was 3 or 4 or 5 in the afternoon and I could have put in another 5 or 6 miles before sundown if I wanted, but if the spot looked beautiful and inviting it was a tough argument to make me go on. An inviting campsite before dusk is a near blessing.
Anyway, some of the group left the trail early for various reasons, leaving five of us behind. Our hike that day was slow. Danny lead Marine marching songs from his days in the Corps while Julie and Lindsay sang along. When they chided me for not joining in I grumbled that we had a long way to go and we hadn’t even hit the pass. (The pass is always something to think about. Many people camp as close to the pass as they can so they can knock it out early the next day. We hadn’t done that.) Cameron, as usual, went on ahead at his own pace.
I’m not sure what the elevation was when I felt it. Probably around 10,000 feet. A lady passed by and Julie mistakenly asked if we were close.
She laughed. “You’ve got a ways.”
We stopped for another break along a stream that coursed across the rocks.
“I need to go on,” I said. “I’m going to go on. Yeah, you guys cool with me just going on? I’m gonna go to the top. The top.”
I left them and skipped from rock to rock like a hopscotching 3rd grader who’d just downed a bag of Skittles. I could have easily slipped and sprained my ankle–quickest way to cut short the trip or delay myself a few days–but I skipped anyway. While I continued on giggling I remembered the piece I wrote about me getting sick on Kilimanjaro. “Skip” was what I did just before I got sick.
The lady was right though. We were not very close at all. The pass was still several miles away and a solid thousand feet or more up from where we were. (They call these false passes. Backpackers should be wary of them. The pass is never as close as you think.)
When I got to the top I laughed some more and took my boots off and spit out some mangled string of sentences that probably didn’t amount to much. Cameron was up there already and sort of marveled at how fast I reached the top considering how far ahead he had been.
When Lindsay showed up I knew I was definitely feeling the altitude. I wasn’t tired. Far from it. I couldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t stop fidgeting, climbing things, talking about how far we could go if we kept on.
She said, “I just can’t be around you right now. I can’t be around Chris. He’s too much. You’ve got too much energy.”
You can sort of see it in my eyes in that picture. It was really no different from the Lava Tower at Kilimanjaro when I skipped to the outhouse to take a dump. It was no different than the hike up Mount Baldy last Spring when–around 9500 feet–a Church group filled with 40-somethings passed my friends and me and in response I essentially skipped up the mountain past them. When asked what happened, I said, “I couldn’t have that group beat us. No way. Couldn’t have it.”
That wasn’t really it, though In truth, it was the first sign I had altitude sickness. That’s what happens to me. I become a hyperactive giggling obnoxious mess. I guess it’s better than the Total Recall eyes.
© 2014 Christopher Dart